"I put my heart and soul, my mind into it," said artist John Douglas Dailey of the paintings he did while in prison, some of which are now on display at an inmates' exhibition in the Martha Washington Library.

Dailey said that getting into art classes at the Fairfax County Jail allowed him to salvage something personal out of life in a cell.

"Sitting in an eight-by-five for 24 hours, you got to do something . . . I couldn't put it into words. I was going through some bad times when I was in prison," he said. "I don't know what I would have done with myself if I hadn't had something.

"As far back as I can remember, I've been interested in art. I always liked to look at other people's work, Michelangelo, stuff like that," he added. "I study people when I look at them. That might be part of being an artist or something."

Dailey, 27, said his drawings and paintings are an important part of attempts to resume a normal life after a brief stretch in prison for a robbery conviction.

The library exhibition includes work by Dailey, his brother Charles, and two dozen other men, almost all still inmates, who were taught by volunteer instructer Ina Schecter. The show is on display through July.

His work reflects two major interests - people and nature, the latter stemming in part from boyhood days on a farm in nearby Middleburg, he said. Like many of the inmates, Dailey also painted many self-portraits and jail scenes. Several of his drawings are vivid recollections of his time as a soldier in Vietnam.

One of Dailey's most recent works is a head sculpture of himself, made at home with 15 pounds of clay and no experience whatsoever, he said. "I bought three boxes of clay, looked in the mirror and just did it. . . . .

"I've always thought book education to do art was a waste time. you got to try it and see what happens. I just pick up art books to see how the artists do pictures, what kinds of color they use, shapes and forms, stuff like that. Whenever I see sculpture, I try to figure out how it was done, what the guy did, that's all."

He has had requests from friends and business acquaintances for paintings and drawings and even some commissions to work, he said.

"I really feel good when my friends stand back and look at it and tell me they like it . . . My new boss came over the other day and said he wanted to buy a painting from me and said he'd pay me $50 for it."

Dailey works as a tree surgeon for a Northern Virginia firm. "I'm one of the highest paid tree men in the area," he said. He pays part of his weekly wages as restitution to the victim of his crime, a condition of his parole, he said.

"I have been trying to develop my own style, but I'm not good enough to be doing my own original thing right now. I'd like to able to make it as a professional artist . . . I think I could, but the kind of work I do now, it's hard to find time when you're not tired."

"As far as trying to impress someone with my work, no," he said. "I want to do paintings thatno one has ever done before."